Sunday, 3 October 2010

What's in a name?

When not teaching, I've been laid up with Fresher's Flu for a lot of the past few days, so I've been watching a lot of telly and thinking about classical names in modern pop culture.

Some ancient names are still in relatively common usage as names now - such as Helen, Alexander, Diana, Philip and, to a lesser extent, Hector. However, although mythological or other ancient names can be relatively common in modern Greece, in Anglophone countries they're rather more rare. My friends who teach in primary schools tell me that the sort of names parents give their children in Britain are much more varied now than when I was in primary school, when just about everyone was called Sarah or David, but classical names are mostly still a rarity I think. Marcus is perhaps becoming more popular, though when it was used in Sex and the City a few years ago, it still provoked the immediate response 'is he a Roman?!'

This makes classical and especially mythological names rather useful for writers wanting to give their characters unusual names. I'm talking specifically about contemporary fiction here, rather than science fiction or fantasy, where mythological or classical names are par for the course (I've already talked about Star Trek, Harry Potter and Inception and I'm sure The Matrix will get its own post some day). Sci-fi and fantasy use unusual-sounding names all the time, to help create their imaginary worlds, and the extra symbolism provided by using a classical name is very useful indeed. Using classical names in a story with a contemporary setting, though, stands out rather more as a deliberate oddness in a specific character.

This is probably why, most of the time, these names are suggested as a joke, rather than actually given to a character. In Friends, for example, when Monica and Phoebe (another classical name) are trying to work out the name of the man they accidentally put into a coma, Phoebe first suggests Glen. When Monica complains that Glen is 'not special enough', Phoebe suggests Agamemnon, which Monica insists is 'waaaay too special'. When I first saw the episode, the name meant nothing to me, other than a vague notion it might be mythological, and when I was a teenager I used to repeat this joke (yes, I was quite an annoying teenager) without being able to remember the name itself, just that it was madly long and complicated. This is the point of using the name here. The Greek name is too long to sound natural in English and the vague notion that it might be something mythical makes it sound suitably bizarre for a name Phoebe (who later suggests that Rachel name her child Phoebo, clearly unware that the masculine version of her name is Phoebus) to suggest and Monica to veto. Similarly, when Lisa is trying to name her new design of doll in The Simpsons, she suggests 'Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom', which leads to eye-rolling among the adults. Minerva doesn't sound right for a doll, as dolls usually have either fairly common names, or at least names that are easy to pronounce for small children (usually ending in -y or -ie). Minerva is too difficult for a child to pronounce and the fact that Minerva/Athena is goddess of wisdom probably wouldn't mean much to a small child who isn't Lisa Simpson. Unlike the symbolic names used in sci-fi and fantasy, which are often there to provide clues or in-jokes for the audience, these jokes only work by assuming the audience have little interest in classical myth.

Every now and again, though, a character will actually be given an unusal mythological name. I talked about Andromeda in My Sister's Keeper recently, and over the weekend I re-watched Juno, a very sweet movie which I really like, except for the one horrible bit where they show us a bit of a gory horror movie Juno is watching! As in My Sister's Keeper, the dialogue in Juno explains the myth behind the name for the benefit of anyone in the audience not familiar with the story, though, bizarrely, Juno describes the goddess she's named after as 'Zeus's wife'. This is true, but it's a weird mix-up of Greek and Latin - Zeus is the Greek name for the head god, married to Hera, and their Roman names are Jupiter and Juno. Using Juno rather than Hera makes sense - either could work, but Juno sounds less unusual in English and Hera carries implications concerning 'hero' that wouldn't work so well for the film. It just seems strange that she describes Juno as the wife of Zeus, especially since I would have thought Jupiter is the better known name - but perhaps that's the point, perhaps Zeus sounds more exotic and unusual.

The other thing that's always puzzled me about Juno is why anyone would want to name their child that in the first place! With apologies to anyone who is named Juno or Hera, this is the not the goddess I would have chosen to name my daughter after - in ancient literature, Hera is usually an infuriating nag who gets in the way of the hero, especially if said hero is Heracles. On the other hand, if you want to name a character like Juno after a Greco-Roman goddess, there probably isn't much choice. Athena/Minerva and Artemis/Diana are both virgin goddesses, which would be excessively ironic for Juno considering the movie's plot, and Aphrodite/Venus would be far too judgmental and even more ridiculously ironic - the name would be a false note in the movie, the sort of overly symbolic name only found in sci-fi and fantasy. Using Juno gives the character a quirky and meaningful name that doesn't sound horribly false within the context of the movie, to go with the quirky and unusual character of Juno herself.

If parents really are getting more adventurous with their children's names, we may find these names becoming more common and their use in fiction may come to mean nothing more than that the author liked the name. But at least, in cases like Juno and My Sister's Keeper, when characters actively explain the origins of their names, nerds like me can happily over-analyse the name's usage, knowing that the classical allusion is deliberate and does have a purpose!

(By the way - the fish in Finding Nemo is named after Captain Nemo, who I know nothing about, but 'nemo' in Latin means 'nobody' - so the film is called Finding Nobody! It's little things like this that make you laugh when you're stuck in bed with Mad Fresher Disease).


  1. I have just started Classical Studies. OMGILOVEITSOMUCH.
    Excuse me.

  2. Yay! So glad you're enjoying it - phew! :))

  3. Naming patterns can be weird. Hector is still reasonably common in Latin America, while in Germany it is almost strictly a dog name. Actually, Hispanics still use a lot of classical or mythological names. You don't get many Ipplitos these days, but a couple generations ago it wasn't uncommon. Same with Sixto and a few others. Meanwhile in Germany, there's actually a guy in the Bundestag named Cajus Julius Caesar. He's not real prominent, but not exactly a backbencher either. I often wonder what his parents were thinking.

    Also, American science fiction author named his daughter Athena.

  4. Oops, that should have been American science fiction author *John Scalzi* in that last sentence.

  5. Isn't Monica also classical? IIRR St. Augustine's mother was called Monica.

  6. Yes, she was - I did think about mentioning that, but I don't know what the origin of that name is - when it came into use - and unlike Phoebe, from Phoebus, or Juno, or Andromeda, it's not the name of a well known mythological or historical character, so I left it.

  7. My first name is quite Classical, but most people are far more likely to bring up slasher movies if they comment on my name than to bring up Argonauts. :-(

    Oh, and my middle name is Andrew, making it an Anglicized Greek name more Biblical than mythological.

  8. :( We need to revitalise the myth of Jason - maybe do an exciting CGI Jason and the Argonauts ;) (Though, as a child of the 80s, I'm afraid when I hear Jason I think Donovan, but I apologise for that, I'm working on it!)

  9. There are some very classical Italian names like Tullio, Ettore, Achille, Cesare, Giulio and Livia/o which are reasonably common (I've met an Achille!) - in addition to the more 'normal' Alessandro, Elena, etc, which I really like!

    As an aside, two of my classics lecturers have had babies recently(ish). Chloe and Hector..

  10. You aren't very bright, must come from living in a cave. Don't broadcast your ignortance.

  11. I always assumed that Captain Nemo was named after Odysseus (dubbing himself "Oudeis" to the Cyclops).

  12. That makes sense - I'm not familiar with Captain Nemo at all I'm afraid, I'm very bad on 19th century classics!

  13. Hi, Juliette -- love your blog! I just happened to come across this post today, and I wanted to ask you something I've wondered about for a long time. People in the ancient world often had these long complicated names -- did that mean they were always addressed that way? Or would they have had shortened versions, used by friends and close relations? Example: "Hey Archimedes! Have you seen my scroll?" Or may it have been "Hey, Arch, have you... (etc.)." Did Alexander ever answer to "Al?" If only by Hephaestion :-) Anyway, just curious. Thanks again for your super fun blog! Ruth

  14. Hi Ruth, thank you, I'm so glad you like the blog! I don't know if we have much evidence for nicknames in the ancient world, but as someone who insisted on shortening everyone's names from the age of about 6, it wouldn't surprise me! However, Greek and Latin both decline proper names, so given the need to change the ending of the name depending on what you were saying, there may not have been any practical way to shorten them. Elite Romans had three names and which one or two you used depended on your relationship to the person, that's probably as close as they could get to shortening them.

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